Afghan Peace processes sans peace

Another Afghan peace process has caught international attention, albeit belatedly. Russia, China and Pakistan got together in Moscow, on December 27, for the third round of secretary level talks. Though earlier two rounds went almost unnoticed, the recent one invoked an overreaction from Kabul, while Washington also radiated a feeling of unease. Nonetheless, the outcome of these meetings is a major diplomatic success for Pakistan since Russia and China have vindicated Pakistan’s stance by supporting the Afghan peace process. And now Pakistan Army Chief has established initial contacts with Afghan leadership to re-rail the bilateral peace push.

As Russia and China are out to play a robust role in the Afghan peace process, the US is feeling itchy due fear of marginalization. The tripartite meeting resolved to continue efforts towards further facilitating the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace through reintegration of insurgents into mainstream political stratum. Afghan conflict and its resolution may no longer be an exclusive baby of America and its like minded allies (read camp followers).

New strategies and formats for peace process have begun to compete with the America floated way forward. “Moscow has a new strategy: the cold shoulder. We won’t join the useless events”, President Putin’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov said.  “Russia, would sit out any talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul, backed by the United States, Pakistan and China. Honestly speaking, we’re already tired of joining anything Washington starts,” he added.

Russian is waking up to an evolving situation. Since the winding up of NATO combat mission, intra-Afghan fighting has incrementally relocated to areas of Afghanistan adjoining the three Central Asian Republics which Russia regards as its area of influence. Though Russia does not fear a direct threat from the Taliban, it feels that Central Asian fighters could use Afghanistan as staging ground to attack Russian territory.

Spokesperson for Afghan Foreign Ministry has cautioned: “Even if such talks are organized with goodwill, [they] cannot yield any substantial results because no one from the Afghan side is there,” he said.  He insisted that there is “ambiguity about the objectives of the Moscow talks…We want clarification from all sides involved in the meeting. We have serious concerns about the initiative as Afghanistan was not consulted.” A few Afghan parliamentarians also expressed annoyance over “holding the talks on Afghanistan without Afghanistan.”  Some MPs described the meeting as violation of Afghanistan’s sovereignty. A few other Afghan leaders saw it as “meddling in Afghanistan’s internal affairs”, “illegitimate” and “dubious”. Even though the three participating countries had already agreed to proceed with consultations in an expanded format and indicated to welcome the participation of Afghanistan.

Russia has recently formed another tripartite alliance with Iran and Turkey, the troika has reaffirmed “their determination to jointly fight the IS”. Washington had, then, felt upset over not being included in that anti-IS bloc and is now uncomfortable over being left out from anther three-way deliberations on the situation in Afghanistan. Officials in Kabul and Washington have said that Russia is deepening its ties with the Taliban fighting the government, though Moscow has denied providing aid to the insurgents. Russia is of the view that overhang of the violence in Afghanistan has resulted into ungoverned swaths of territories which may fall under the control of Daesh affiliated entities.

China and Russia have announced a ‘flexible approach’ to work towards delisting the Afghan Taliban from the UN sanctions list, this is likely to facilitate launching of peaceful dialogue between Afghan government and insurgent groups. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had last month asked the United Nations to add the Taliban’s new leader, Maulvi Haibatullah, to its sanctions list. The position on delisting may be a snub for Kabul.

Continuation of this trilateral process confirms that Pakistan and Russia have been able to put behind their Cold War era bitterness. It also shows that Pakistan, Russia and China have now convergence of opinion on Afghan conflict. “(China, Russia and Pakistan) expressed particular concern about the rising activity in the country of extremist groups including the Afghan branch of IS,” and “noted the deterioration of the security situation)”, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters.

While in case of conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, Russia and the US have had difference of perception, the two had similarity of views with respect to Afghan conflict and its likely solutions.  Russia had given a free hand to Obama administration and had cooperated on issues like drug trafficking and provisioning of logistics support to ISAF/ NATO troops. When Pakistan blocked flow of American supplies after Salalah attacks, Russia went overboard in putting together an alternative route called Northern Distribution Network to let the logistics keep flowing unhindered.

Apparently, Russia may be distancing both from the US as well as its protégé the Afghan government. The US still has nearly 10,000 troops in Afghanistan. Combined US-Afghan military effort is, for all practical purposes, bogged down in the face of military activities by the Taliban. A number of Afghan provincial capitals have repeatedly come under pressure from the Taliban during last year. Factors like high causality number, desertion rate, poor troop motivation and low quality leadership have plagued the proficiency of Afghan National Security forces (ANSF).  Possibility of meltdown of ANSF of ethno-sectarian lines is a distinct possibility.

A senior Afghan official stated: “Bilaterally, we have struggled to convince the Russians on certain issues because they increasingly see us only as part of this larger game with the United States”. Afghan government is concerned that emergence of competing prescriptions with regard to peace process and Taliban’s direct contacts with important capitals may not augur well for the forward movement of peace process.

In all probability Kabul’s hue and cry over the third trilateral session in Moscow are at the American prompting who are getting nervous that the Russians are becoming proactive in Afghanistan. This comes at a time when the US has hurled allegations that Russia is in touch with the Taliban.

Apparently Russia has taken a decision to launch an initiative to address perceived security threat from the chaos in Afghanistan on its own. It has upgraded its military base in Tajikistan coupled with joint military manoeuvers along the Afghanistan border.  Russia has also pledged $1.2 billion for capacity enhancement of Tajik military. In all probability, Russia has established direct channels with the Taliban for sharing intelligence about Daesh fighters in northern Afghanistan.

The Taliban are adamant at freeing Afghanistan from foreign occupational troops and from a foreign political system that had been pressed upon Afghanistan.

The Quadrilateral Cooperation Group (QCG) initiative is pegged around open ended acceptance of US troops in Afghanistan as embedded in the bilateral security agreement and the acceptance of the Afghan constitution. With military successes coming their way in numbers, Taliban are not likely to accept either of these proposition.  Russia considers the QCG an inefficient process because important regional powers like Russia and Iran are not included in it. Moreover, QCG stands divided as the US and Afghanistan advocate use of military force, while Pakistan and China prefer a political solution through talks.

It is logical that discussions on Afghanistan would not be productive without participation of Afghanistan. However, for quite some time, Kabul has been instrumental in scuttling peace initiatives on one flimsy pretext or the other.

Pakistan has recurrently stated that it would support all efforts aimed at Afghan-owned and Afghan-led reconciliation. It has made tireless efforts for bringing Taliban on the negotiating table. Latest revelation indicate that Islamabad supported peace talks between the Afghan government and Gulbadin Hekmatyar. Military power of Taliban is a hard reality. Thus, no peace effort is likely to succeed sans Taliban participation.

Pakistan Observer, January 04, 2017

Disclaimer: Views expressed are of the writer and are not necessarily reflective of IPRI policy

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About the Author

Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal is Consultant Policy & and Strategic Response at IPRI. He is on the panel of experts for Spearhead Research and Centre for Pakistan and Gulf Studies. He is a member board of advisers of Opinion Maker and member National Academic Council, Institute of Policy Studies. He is on the visiting faculty of Quaid-i- Azam University, Islamabad. He is a former Assistant Chief of Air Staff, Pakistan Air Force.

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